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Is prefab the new norm? Why we need to stop referring to modular as the alternative.

View of modern buildings in Melbourne, Australia at sunset

The Melbourne skyline continues to expand. Image: iStock

We have often referred to the modular or prefab industry as an alternative building method, challenging traditional building models with this new form of building. However as an industry, we haven’t done ourselves any favours by calling modular prefab building alternative. Are we really that far away from the prefabricated building method becoming the norm in construction?

The modular, prefabrication industry is growing quickly and a major segment in the construction industry. All signs are pointing to it becoming the way of the future.

The recent prefabAUS conference in September 2015, Melbourne clearly showed the growth of the sector. With a theme of industry transformation, record attendance was obtained across the three day industry event.

Director of PrefabAUS and Wood and Grieve Engineers principal John Lucchetti said at the conference, “Prefab is here to stay, and modular thinking will be increasingly adopted across the whole field of modern construction codes.”

A discussion paper, titled Victoria’s Future Industries, Construction Technologies, prepared by the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, notes that prefabrication offers lower costs and reduced project payback times and waste, while improving workplace safety. It also boosted productivity by reducing lost time due to bad weather.

Offsite construction and modular building is widely used in Europe and North America, and is becoming more and more in many parts of Asia. Well known for technological innovation, prefabAUS reports that Sweden is leading the world with 74% of its construction utilising prefabrication. In Australia, the uptake of prefabricated construction accounts for approximately 3% of construction.

“Some commentators predict that over the next 10 years, up to 15-25 per cent of new building in Australia will be prefabricated or modular construction.

“[However], a lack of understanding around off-site construction, particularly by regulators, educators and financiers is limiting the sector’s development,” discussed the paper.
Prefabricated construction is used by big developers such as Lend Lease, Mirvac and Australand.

Rob Adams, Director of City Design and Projects at the City of Melbourne, says the push toward prefabrication will grow amid an environment in which time and cost savings associated with offsite manufacturing are becoming more apparent. Australia’s denser cities are driving an imperative for less traffic disruption during building and the importance of minimising waste as well as occupational health and safety risks on site.

“Certainly, I don’t think Australia is anywhere amongst the leaders,” Adams said when asked about whether or not Australia was falling behind in terms of prefab uptake. “If that warrants a statement of falling behind, I think that is true.

“But I think increasingly as cities move toward higher densities – and there is every indication that Australian cities are going to need to do that to keep up with the expansion of population within the cities – then the opportunities for prefabrication I think are going to be greater.

“All the levers, all the indicators are right at the moment for Australia to start looking very seriously at the different systems that are available for prefabrication.”

Continuing to refer to our industry as alternative will only hinder the widespread uptake of modular and prefabricated construction as the new norm. Our industry needs to prove that products and technologies have long moved on from questionable prefabrication of the past and position our construction as the way forward.